The island of S. Nicolau is situated to the north of the Archipelago. With a surface area of 346 km2, its widest point in the North/South direction of 25 km is on the western side and its shape is very similar to that of the African Continent, narrowing to the east for a distance of 52 km.
The very active volcanic past of the island is majestically visible in Monte Gordo, the highest peak of the island with an altitude of 1304 m. Two separate clusters of peaks part from there, one in a North/South direction, the other from East to West.
Upon reaching the sea this succession of hills and plains terminates in almost sheer cliffs. The valleys on the whole are generally narrow and deep, except for the VALE DE FAJÁ, which is wide and fertile enough for agriculture to flourish.
Although S. Nicolau was discovered on the 6th of December 1461, it was only during the middle of the XVII century, when the first village was built in Porto da Lapa that people began to settle there. However, because of the constant attacks by pirates, the inhabitants moved inland and settled in Ribeira Brava.
Access to the sea was obtained through the Port of Preguiça in the Bay of S. Jorge and in 1818 a fortress was built to defend the local inhabitants from pirates.
Visiting the island of S. Nicolau
This mountainous island, from which one can observe the rest of the archipelago in clear days, possesses an astonishing beauty. When visiting the island, one can get to know Ribeira Brava, which owes its name to the impetuousness of the stream crossing it during the rainy season.
The Cachaco area, despite the frequent fogs, offers a spectacular view above the village. Throughout the narrow streets, alleys and numerous squares the colonial influence in the architecture of the buildings is obvious.
From among these, the Igreja Matriz (mother church, the old Se) and the Seminario-Liceu (Seminary), the first secondary school not only of the archipelago but also of the whole western coast of Africa, are well worth visiting.
Many important personalities of the Cabo-verdean culture studied there. Other points of interest in the island are Faja, the writings on the Rotcha Scribida (writing on the rock) and the village of Tarrafal. At Faja, besides tracts of cultivated land, one can find as well the house where Baltazar Lopes da Silva, one of the all-time key figures in Cabo-verdean intellectual life was born.
The writings of the Rotcha Scribida were once the main tourist attraction in the island. Located at Ribeira da Prata – it takes some time to get to this far off place, Rotcha Scribida consists of a few sentences, carved on the rock in an iconographic language as yet unknown and increasingly imperceptible due to erosion.
At Tarrafal, a fishing village, you can enjoy the famous beaches with sands of medicinal value (rich in titanium and iodine) and sought by many people hoping to cure their illnesses.
The fishing and transformation of tuna fish are important activities around these parts. Surrounded by extremely rich seawaters, Sao Nicolau also attracts lovers of fishing from all around the world, anxiously hoping to catch the blue marlin and the swordfish, plentiful in these waters, especially from May till October.
But S. Nicolau's true ex-libris is a secular tree, the "dragoeiro" (dragon tree), a true relic of other times.
Unique vacation experience
The islands of Cabo Verde present many contrasts, in landscape and vegetation, and in the customs of the people, which result from the cross-fertilization of outside influences. The tourism industry, which the country has developed in recent years are no exception to the rule. The defining characteristic of tourism in Cabo Verde is authenticity.
Sao Nicolau offers vacationers an experience that is both original and unique. Tarrafal is a small town located on the southeastern coast of the island, one hour from Ribeira Brava, the island capital. The main industry is tuna and canning, but the town is best known for black sand beaches, visited year after year by travelers from all over the world, who come for its health-giving properties.
Some people come just for the heat; in August and September the temperature can rise to near 40 degree Celsius. But the heat isn't everything. Although no thorough scientific research has been conducted, it is generally believed that the black sand at Tarrafal contains titanium, which makes it useful in treating various diseases, especially arthritis and other similar complaints.
According to Antonio Alves, who goes there every week "just to unwind", there is no doubt that physically challenged individual who stay for a period of time go home remarkably recovered.
For instance, some years ago a church verger from Sao Vicente, called Silvestre, arrived in a stretcher "moving only his eyes", after years of intense suffering. One month of treatment at Tarrafal was enough for him to carry the flag in the procession for Our Lady of Light. "I saw it with my own eyes", says Antonio Alves.
Another case is that of the Dutch lady who arrived in the country in a wheelchair with her son, and left the wheelchair behind when she went home. There are several forms of treatment used at Tarrafal, with its iodine-rich sea and black sand.
The heat and the iodine alone offer relief from the stress of modern life. There are those who bury parts of their body in the sand, whilst others take the sand home to rub it over their skin.
Many people believe in the healing properties of the pools of water around the beach. But the most popular treatment is the "sauna" in which the physically challenged is sat in a hut with seaweed and boiling water. The individual is wrapped in hot rugs and receives the vapor produced by the seaweed taken from the beach. The treatment is repeated over several days, depending on the patient's strength, preferably in the months of April, May or June, when the weather is cooler.
There are women on hand to assist, with skills passed down from generation to generation. The treatment, however, is not recommended to those suffering from heart conditions. Otherwise, it's a unique cure that is available only on Sao Nicolau, Cabo Verde.
Wedding rituals of S. Nicolau
One of the most interesting aspects of the island's culture is the traditions surrounding engagements and weddings, which continue to this day unaffected by the winds of change. Everything begins with the boy's conquest of the girl, which follows strict rules. The boy throws a small stone to show his interest, which she picks up and puts in her pocket as a sign of her acceptance.
The next step is for the boy to write the girl a letter. Curiously, the function of the letter is not so much as a declaration of love, but essentially to serve as proof in the event of something unexpected happening. This is followed by an exchanged of gifts, called the "sinal de krensa", of sentimental or monetary value.
The girl's virginity is an important issue, possibly because of Sao Nicolau's past role as the center of the country's Catholic Church. Still at the early stages of courtship the boy has to know whether his bride-to-be is a virgin or not. So if she is, she presents him a closed flower, but if she is not the flower is open.
When the young couples have been courting for some time, the boy eventually asks the girl's hand in marriage. The girl takes the first step by telling her mother everything about her boyfriend's intentions. If the mother is happy with the boy she tells her husband, who takes the final decision. If the boy is an honest worker from a good family, the father will give his consent.
The girl then has to tell him how her parents reacted. The engagement is officially celebrated in the girl's house. The boy finds two or three trusted people to accompany him, who might be his godfather, father or someone else. The chosen for the mission take with him a liter of rum (Grogue), while the girl's parents make their own preparations for the visit.
On the chosen day the parties meet, and begin by discussing trivial everyday affairs. Finally, the spokesman for the boy's party asks the hand of the girl for him. After a brief silence, the girl's parents call her into the room and ask if she had consented to them asking her hand. If she says yes, the proposal is accepted.
The event is celebrated the next day with the liter of rum brought by the boy's party. The engagement will normally last a full year.
Eight days before the wedding work starts on the (pilagem), firewood is being gathered and the (xerem) are being prepared. The pilagem consists of preparing the corn for the xerem and fill the intestines of the goat.
The xerem is one of the main ingredients for the celebrations, accompanying the main dish of goat stew. When the corn has been worked into coarse flour it is cooked like rice – first with oil and then mixed with water until the xerem is obtained, mixing all the Verdeans with a wooden spoon.
There are two characters who mastermind a wedding from beginning to end. The "(majordomo)", is a respected person who enjoys the complete confidence of both families, and is the prime mover behind the preparations and the festivities. He is who receives the ("bandejas") sent by the guests a few days before the wedding, and he is arbiter in any dispute arising between the families. The ("bandejas") are the presents, but presents with a difference: they are dishes for the wedding feast, especially goats, hens and cakes.
The goats have their horns decorated with flowers, the hens have ribbons around their necks, and the cakes are decorated in bright colors. This is the beginning of the preparations for a (boda), or a wedding on Sao Nicolau. One of the distinguishing characteristics of a wedding on the island is the goat stew served at the banquet. But the goats are only slaughtered two days before the wedding.
The second central figure in the organization is the (bokera). She is a woman who enjoys the confidence of the mother of the bride and acknowledged as being best fitted for the job. Her first task comes a few days before the wedding when she prepares the told or nuptial chamber where the couples are to spend their wedding night. On the night of the wedding there is dancing.
The band of local musicians entertains the guests and then at given moment strikes up a lively tune to distract their attention. This is when the bokera guides the young couple out of the room and leads them to the chamber. Decorated with stars made out of shiny paper, the chamber is all prepared to receive the couple for their first night.
The bed is done out in style which will vary depending on the wealth of their families, but never without a white sheet. The stars are used again next day by the guests who wear them on their shoulders when they go to visit the newly weds.
Virginity and the idea of purity occupy a position of fundamental importance in the marriage rituals, and the consequences are various. The following day, if the bride was a virgin, the bridegroom will let off fireworks, announcing that "he was the first", and the bokera shows off the sheet stained with blood, symbol of purity.
Then she leads the guests in a rendition of the song "sab e devera" ("it really was good"); everyone is carried away with emotion, not least the parents of the bride. The mother weeps for joy while the father orders another round of rum to drink to his daughter's chastity.
When the bride is not a virgin the tradition is curious. The bridegroom appears the next day with one leg of his trousers rolled up above the knee, and he may if he wishes reject his wife and return her to her parents. The bokera is once again important here, working to bring about a reconciliation, which she hardly achieves.
"Arma Caldera" - Follow Up
This is almost the end of the celebrations. It only remains for the godparents to cook the first meal. From this moment on the newly married couple take charge of their own livelihood. They listen to the advice of their parents and godparents who wish them peace and prosperity in their new home.
Most distinguished son of S. Nicolau
In the center of Vila da Ribeira Brava, in the Praça do Terreiro, next to the parish church, stands a memorial bust. "Deciphering the whispered prayers in the old cathedral church", in the words of Osvaldo Alcantara (Baltazar Lopes da Silva), the bust was placed there by the people of São Nicolau, on June 15, 1884, in memory of Dr. Julio Jose Dias.
Jose Antonio Dias was a wealthy landowner and governor of the island. He married Dona Maria Tomasia Leite, who in 1805 bore him a son, who they named Julio Jose Dias and who was destined for a distinguished career. As we read in an article by Francisco Lopes da Silva in Noticias of May 1, 1990, "when he reached the right age, he set off for Paris to study medicine, full of bright hopes for the future, hopes which proved well founded".
The fact of going to Paris was unusual in itself, as few families on the islands could afford such a luxury. Having completed his studies at the most famous university of the day, the now Doctor Julio Jose Dias followed the route established by so many other Cabo-verdeans and "returned to his native land, turning down all the opportunities which would of surely have offered themselves anywhere else, choosing instead to dedicate himself to the poor people of his island", Lopes da Silva wrote.
Known as Doctor Julio, he gave his life's work for his "island brothers", providing medical treatment for all, free of charge. Consultations and medicines were given at his' own expense, and he shouldered the medical problems of the whole island until when the first government Medical Officer was appointed for São Nicolau.
As a doctor, he performed almost miraculous cures, given the scant resources of the time. The year of 1866 was one of great changes in São Nicolau. It was also the year in which the Doctor revealed his true generosity of spirit. The Seminary-High School had been founded by decree, but a building still needed to be found to house it, and the search extended to all the islands of the archipelago.
In an act of selflessness, Doctor Julio gave up his "grand house in Vila da Ribeira Brava, and moved to a smaller house he had in Cachaço, where he lived his last years". The Seminary-High School was installed in São Nicolau, thus marking a new era in the island's history.
Doctor Julio shared his wealth with others to extent of dying a poor man in his isolated house out of town. An instance of this is his gift in 1867 of a spring to the Municipal Council, making it possible to bring piped water into Ribeira Brava. At the same time he made donations to the Santa Casa da Misericordia (a charitable institution) in Madeira thereby helping the poor and helpless in an island far from his own. In civic life he occupied several posts, without ever drawing a salary.
Most notably he was Director of Public Works, in charge of major projects such as the Preguiça quarry and the church of Praia Branca. At the age of 68, on September 2, 1873, Doctor Julio came home at the end of an afternoon. "He began to climb the stairs. When he reached the top he paused to take in the view over the valley of Ribeira Brava.
It was a look with the first signs of sadness, and tears formed in his eyes. One by one he looked down at the familiar places, Agua das Patas, Campinhio, Cruzet....
Finally his eyes came to rest on the Eastern Point. With a smile which seemed to be not of this world, the grand old man collapsed in the hands of his lifelong companion and wife, Dona Ana Rosa, who had borne him eight sons, and said calmly, "Ana, I'm going to die!" This is how Francisco Lopes da Silva describes the last episode in the life of one of São Nicolau's most distinguished sons. But his memory is kept alive on the bust in the Praça do Terreiro.